Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
The first time James Franco and Frank Bidart met, they stayed at dinner talking for eight hours, the restaurant closing around them and leaving a waiter behind to lock up. They both told the story at their joint reading in Chicago (last Wednesday), plus it’s recounted in Franco’s new book of poems. Before that fateful dinner, Franco was simultaneously pursuing an MFA in poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina and an MFA in film studies at NYU. He was introduced to Bidart’s poem “Herbert White” at the former and decided to adapt it for an assignment at the latter. His poetry professors put him in touch with Bidart so he could ask permission.
Bidart wanted to have dinner with Franco first, so that he could explain his intentions in writing “Herbert White” (which is written in the first-person character of a necrophiliac murderer), plus, he said, “Of course I wanted to have dinner with James Franco! He was brilliant in Pineapple Express!”
Bidart, 74, is one of the pre-eminent American poets of the 20th century — friends with both Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, and now James Franco. After their Before Sunrise-style meet-cute the two stayed in touch, sometimes trading new poems they had written. Franco completed his adaptation of “Herbert White,” and after reading Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West,” which Bidart wrote about himself writing an earlier poem, “Ellen West,” Franco responded with “Directing Herbert White,” written in the same style.
All of which lead to Frank Bidart and James Franco coming to Chicago to promote Franco’s new book of poetry, of which “Directing Herbert White” is the title poem, and none of us knowing what to make of it. The sold-out auditorium was partially filled by excited young women taking lots of camera photos and giggling a little too readily at everything Franco said, and partially by members of either of the event’s sponsors — The Chicago Humanities Festival and The Poetry Foundation — regular arts patrons who are accustomed to far fewer screaming girls in their midst. This clash of the fawning and the cynical made for a weird vibe, navigated by those of us who were conveying with our body language that we were sort of there ironically. (It had been a big joke at the bar earlier, that I was leaving to go see James Franco read poetry.)
But perhaps I’m underestimating my fellow attendees by generalizing them. The arts patrons, after all, didn’t have to come when they found out a Hollywood star would be reading, and I had certainly dressed a little bit nicer than usual and took more than one photo with my iPhone. More likely, most of us were of two minds about it — pretty sure the evening wasn’t going to be intellectually dazzling, but more than a little excited to see Franco, who it can’t be denied was great in Pineapple Express.
What I wasn’t expecting was how unironically enjoyable and inspiring the evening would be. The venerable poet and the handsome young celebrity are too fond of each other, too unabashedly excited to be working closely with someone they greatly admire, to roll my eyes at. Bidart recounted that watching Franco adapt his poem into a film was “thrilling,” a word he peppered throughout his account. When you get to be his age, he explained, you “think you know the parameters of your life,” and most experiences are repetition. Franco, he says, continually “astonishes the guardians of category” with his art and poetry and film and prose, and Bidart is — as he so often repeated — thrilled to be his friend and de facto mentor.
The common line on Franco is that he’s good at the Hollywood stuff and that’s what he should stick to — leave the poetry and film to those who devote themselves to it more exclusively. Many of the poems in Directing Herbert White are about Hollywood, and they reveal how uncomfortable Franco is with being tied or beholden to a place that “devours its young” (Bidart’s words). There are poems that feature Lindsay Lohan, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and Brad Renfro (a lesser-known actor friend of Franco’s who died of a drug overdose, after which Franco had the name “Brad” carved into his arm).
It’s easy to see why an actor who became famous very young might be captivated by others who were brought down by the same young fame. It’s easy to see why he might seek so much outside of Hollywood (the man now has five MFAs) even as he’s constantly told it’s where he belongs, and it gets harder to think he should stop. In this way, finding Bidart must have been like finding an angel — someone who supports and even champions his multifold pursuits.
Both men are operating outside of the expected parameters of their life and it was invigorating to see how much they’re enjoying it. It may not compare to the joy of hearing Seamus Heaney read or the awe at hearing Marilynne Robinson, but I’ll remember that Frank Bidart and James Franco made me want to be bolder. Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West” ends with the line: “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.” I think we could all admit a little more freely that we don’t know enough, that we’re just trying new things, and lucky to find friends along the way.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Fellow Millions staff writer Janet Potter and I enjoy a lot of the same books, and we were both giddy to read The Secret Place, the fifth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Janet got her paws on it early this summer and I read it in a breathless rush last week so that we could discuss ASAP. What follows is our email correspondence about the novel and French’s work in general.
Janet: I loved The Secret Place. I have been a fan of Tana French since I read In the Woods and The Likeness, but I felt that with Faithful Place and Broken Harbor she was kind of in a rut. Each of her books center on a Dublin homicide detective, and although they’re not strictly a series, each new book’s detective has been a character in a previous book. She established a sort of trademark formula in which the murder case that the detective was working had resonance in their own lives — usually by way of dragging up bad memories. In her first two books this gave the plot more depth than an average whodunit, but in the second two the personal connections to the case seemed overbearing.
The Secret Place seemed to me both like a return to form — in that it was innovative and gripping; and a departure from it — in that she finally dumped the “this case has eerie connections to my personal life but I’m going to keep working it no matter how ill-advised that is” trope. And for this book she bravely took on the world of teenage girls — the murder in question took place at a girls’ boarding school outside Dublin and a group of four friends — Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena — are the chief suspects.
French has said that she would shamelessly hang around bus stops and shopping centers to listen to teenagers talk to each other, and my strongest impression of the book is how she used realistic teenage vernacular to convey enormous complexity. I’m a fan of YA books, but the characters in them are frequently aspirational (unless all the super hot, sensitive, artistically-inclined boys in my high school were hiding somewhere). The girls in The Secret Place are very recognizably obnoxious teenagers, and yet their lives and relationships are intricate and compelling — to the extent that I thought they were all idiots, and at one point or another I thought all of them capable of murder.
I guess I’m not really ending with a question, other than do you agree? And did you like the book?
Edan: I wish I had liked The Secret Place as much as you did! After the first 100 pages, I would have agreed with you–at first, I was compelled by this story of teenage girl friendship and, as always, I found French’s trademark prose lively and surprising, phrases like, “little crunch of a grin” and “the acoustics were all swirl and ricochet.” Although I hadn’t gotten bored of French’s mystery formula, as you had, I was pleased to see her attempt something different in her new book. As you say, it was refreshing that this murder case didn’t hold a too-strong psychological power over its detectives; Detective Stephen Moran’s professional motive (to get him off Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by working with the barbed Antoinette Conway) was enough to sustain my interest. I also enjoyed how the narrative switched back and forth between the present investigation, told from Stephen’s first person perspective, and the time leading up to the murder itself, told from the teenage girls’ perspectives. The structure reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which we’ve discussed before; such a sweep backward feels simultaneously magical (we can return to an innocent time!) and foreboding (we know the dead body is just around the bend!) The Secret Place plays the present off the past to provide the reader with a much fuller understanding of this private school and its machinations.
I also enjoyed thinking about how being a teenage girl is a bit like being a detective, for both roles require a near-constant behavioral accommodation in order to get what you want: from a suspect or witness, or from a friend or a teacher. Dang, Tana, that’s good.
Unfortunately, for me, the book falters in its representation of the group of teenage girls that Holly Mackey and her tribe don’t like. The main mean girl, Joanne, and her hangers-on Orla and Gemma, just don’t feel three-dimensional. They never quite emerge from the roles they play, and, unlike Detective Moran, I didn’t fully experience the power, tragedy, and thrill of their constructed selves. After about page 200, I grew bored of the drama between the girls; a lot of it felt repetitive. Likewise, the back-and-forth between Moran and Conway began to feel familiar. I wanted a more swift emotional arc. I wonder, if the book had been more taut, would it have worked for me? Generally, reading this just made me long for the terrific leanness of Dare Me and The Fever by Megan Abbott, two novels about teenage girls, secrets, and darkness.
Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Tana French didn’t give this book a female victim. I’m glad that The Secret Place doesn’t have a True Detective problem–you know, how its only women are dead or dancing naked. But I also wondered if that’s what made me less invested in the story (credit wendy at dresshead.com). Did I much care who killed Christopher Harper? And was that because he was just some prep school asshole? As horrible as this sounds, is a female victim more valuable and/or dramatic to me? What are your thoughts?
Janet: I hadn’t drawn that connection between the adapto-manipulative behavior of teenage girls and detectives. That’s really fascinating, and I think it’s why those long scenes that are just a detective and one of the girls sitting on opposite sides of an interrogation table are so compelling. French has always relished describing interrogations at length, and goes into a lot of detail as to what’s going on in both character’s heads — how they’re reading the other person, how they’re adapting their behavior to regain control in the conversation — and the results could be likened both to a boxing match or a chess game. The interrogation scene in The Secret Place that involved three detectives and one teenage girl — Stephen, Antoinette, Frank Mackey (the protagonist of Faithful Place), and his daughter Holly — was psychologically complex, unpredictable, and good fun to read; perhaps the ultimate Tana French scene and by far my favorite in this book.
I agree with you that Joanne’s gang was a little two-dimensional, but I opted to think it was intentional. The friendship between our four main girls deepened and strengthened considerably throughout the year, and in the process their interactions with Joanne and her friends seem to bother them less and less. I think the juxtaposition between the two groups shows the change in Holly’s group in starker relief. But is “deepened and strengthened” even the right expression? Frankly, the friendship between the four main girls became so important that it took over their lives, reminiscent of the friends in Tartt’s A Secret History, and seemingly manifested its own supernatural power. Can we talk about that? What did you make of the supernatural elements of this book?
Edan: You’re right, French does relish the interrogation scene, and as I said a few years ago, in my analysis of her first three novels, her books teach you how to be a detective. In The Secret Place, we even get detective mythology: “And, somewhere in a locked back corner detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda’s gloss, that walk through old oak doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my banged-up fists along with my enemy’s blood.” That single passage is enough to reveal Detective Moran’s weak spot: his desire, and inability, to belong. I loved the first interrogations of all eight girls. I loved seeing how each girl acted around the detectives–what a way to characterize! (It also made me wonder what Moran would sniff out in me: a need to be loved, a need to be sexy, a need to disappear…) By the time the book gets to Holly’s final interrogation, though, I wasn’t that interested in the mystery anymore, so it wasn’t as effective.
As for the friendship between Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena, I thought it complex and magical and tough in the way that these friendships sometimes are. Their relationship did get more intense, almost rigorous in its devotion…but then adulthood and sexual desire and natural human secrecy got in its way, which then caused all sorts of problems. The downfall of their group-friendship felt realistic and dramatic and upsetting. I guess I would have liked to see the same complexity brought to Joanne’s circle, too, for certainly they are real young women, and not the paper dolls they pretend to be.
The supernatural stuff delighted but didn’t totally land for me. I think French does it better in Broken Harbor where the secret of the baby monitors and the holes in the wall are revealed to have logical explanations…but something inexplicable and eerie remains unanswerable. French was edging toward the supernatural in that novel, and finally got there in The Secret Place. Unfortunately, the powers of the girls felt a bit unfocused for me, and I wanted them to play a more significant role overall. I mean–there’s their ability to move objects with their minds and stuff, and then there’s Chris’s ghost. I couldn’t connect them–did I miss something? It felt muddled…but I love the idea and I want more of that from French in her next book.
Let’s talk about my favorite topic: gender roles. Moran was the feminine one, and Conway was the masculine one. He admired beauty in all its forms…and she grunted. What did you make of this role swap? Maybe this comes back to my question about French choosing a male victim–who is found covered in flowers, I might add.
Janet: I ignored your earlier question about gender roles (to no avail, it seems), because while there are a lot of interesting gender dynamics, I don’t have a unified theory of what French was trying to do with it. Unless she wasn’t trying to do anything other than shift roles around and see what happens.
Originally I thought the the feminine/masculine, good cap/bad cop dynamic between Stephen and Antoinette was intended to distance them from Rob and Cassie, French’s detective team from In the Woods. In that earlier book, Cassie was the bubbly one whose rookie status on the otherwise all-male detective squad was legitimized by having a male partner. In this book, Stephen is the empathetic rookie and Antoinette is tough as nails, perhaps excessively so (but I guess we’ll get into that in French’s next book).
The murder plot also hinges around gender roles — specifically around the psychology and limitations of female friendship and what happens when a guy starts to unwittingly threaten them (erring on the side of ambiguity to avoid giving too much away here). I agree that Chris, even as the murder victim, feels secondary to the murder plot. Solving the mystery requires digging into the social and emotional dynamic between the girls, and I felt that French was more interested in that process than in the fact that it resulted in uncovering the murderer.
It’s also interesting, then, that Stephen is the one who cracks the case. Antoinette had been there a year earlier and failed. Do you think was intentional? Did the case require Stephen’s, uh, feminine touch? Or is he just the hero of the book?
Edan: I’m also not sure what French was up to with the role reversals. I agree that Chris is secondary to the murder plot–not only to the book’s own untangling of whodunit, but also to the girls themselves and their desires and sense of being threatened. He could have been anyone. And that is a bit shiver-inducing in its own right.
I feel the need to quote this line, which, to me, was the best of the whole book, “Who who whose smell in the air of her room, whose fingerprints all over her friends’ secret places.” It suggests that The Secret Place is not only a bulletin board in the school hallway where girls can leave anonymous messages and pictures and the like, but also…a girl’s private parts. I kind of wish the book had been called The Vagina.
This theory of why Antoinette couldn’t crack the case is intriguing–is it because Stephan could see the world as these teenagers could, connecting with all that they responded to and were repelled by? Perhaps Conway couldn’t adequately solve it because she was a woman in a male-dominated squad, which meant she had to listen to her partner even if she didn’t like his choices, even if she was supposed to be the lead detective on the case. Also, she was somewhat handicapped by her class-rage, unable to see these girls for anything but spoiled rich girls; Stephan, on the other hand, saw the beauty of their privilege, and longed for it himself. He was able to transform his longing into intimacy with these suspects.
Now I want everyone in the comment thread to list French’s novels from their most to least favorite. What do you think, Janet? We can do it too!
Jonathan Richman, along with his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, took the stage, strummed his acoustic guitar and began to sing. Nothing. The mikes weren’t working. Where other performers, and indeed lesser legends, might have turned diva, Jonathan simply announced – loudly, to make up for the microphone – that he and the techies would confer for a few minutes, sort out the problem, then the show would go on. Nothing to get uptight about. It was all very casual and friendly.True to his word, he returned to the stage a few minutes later and tried again. Still nothing. And where the diva might have stormed off, Jonathan simply walked to the side, and with clear, unmiked guitar and his best project-to-the-back-of-the-room voice, he began to sing.The audience in the sweltering hall seemed to make the extra effort to keep quiet, almost leaning in so as not to miss anything, and Jonathan responded by singing loud and clear. It was the best “show-must-go-on” moment I’ve ever experienced. Ten minutes later, the mikes began working. For me, the magic of those few unamplified moments set the tone for a glorious evening.This was the second time I’d seen Jonathan Richman over the past decade, and each time it’s like a visit from an old friend, albeit one who plays killer Spanish guitar and seems to have an extraordinary facility with languages. Worldliness aside, his are the most personal of shows, full of joy, optimism, wonder and romance. But also songs of caution, imploring us in his own way not to get too caught up in technology.Early Modern Lovers songs like “Pablo Picasso” take on a new life in this setting, and sit comfortably amid later fare like “In Che Mondo Viviamo”. One minute he’s swiveling and gyrating through “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”, the next he’s singing songs about cell phones and the demise of human interaction.The truest of troubadours, Jonathan Richman goes from town to town sharing his latest musical offerings, his latest stories, letting us into his world for a couple of hours while he serenades us in the most intimate of settings.
“And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all.”
(The Playboy of the Western World)
Luckily it was not Sunday, so An Dun, the only café on the island of Inishmaan, was open. I had ducked inside for shelter from the storm that was raging outside. The cold Irish rain had been coming down hard all day and my clothes were totally soaked through, but I had been determined to explore the island regardless. In the middle of the afternoon, however, I realized I needed a dry place to rest. So inside the café, I sat near the window and warmed up with a pot of tea and a bowl of soup. Outside, the ivy-covered Bronze Age stone ringfort Dun Conor towered over the road on the summit of the hill. I shared the table with a woman I had met earlier in the day at Teach Synge, the squat thatched-roof cottage where the playwright J.M. Synge had stayed during his sojourns here at the turn of the 20th century. This woman was a fiction writer, and we soon got to talking about Joseph O’Connor’s novel Ghost Light — a fictionalized account of the relationship between Synge and his girlfriend, Molly Allgood.
I had been putting off reading Ghost Light for a while, even though I was anxious to dive into it. Since I was writing my own nonfiction book about Synge, I didn’t want another writer’s vision of him to intrude on my own, even if his was fictional.
In his recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “My Debt to Ireland,” John Jeremiah Sullivan travels to the Irish countryside and the Aran Islands to explore his Irish roots, and he writes that his relationship with Ireland began when he read James Joyce. For me, a Jewish New Yorker with no Irish heritage whatsoever, my love affair with Ireland also began with an Irish writer. Ever since I first read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a play that was inspired by Synge’s travels to the three Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, I’ve been hooked on him — his writing, his letters, the story of his life, so much so that I traveled all the way to the Aran Islands to see why they prompted some of the greatest literature to come out of Ireland in the early 20th century. The first time I traveled there, the beauty of the landscape had me agape, and I was intrigued by the stories of the people I met, and began to get a taste of what Synge himself may have learned there. I traveled back for two months over the past few summers, during which time I challenged myself in a myriad of ways both physical and emotional, and I was inspired to write about how the islands changed me, and how I believe they changed Synge.
Synge traveled to the Aran Islands when he was in his late 20s. Before going to Aran, he hadn’t been terribly successful as a writer. His poems were usually about his anger with a God he’d rejected, or about pining for a woman who had rejected him. He’d had no real romantic relationships to speak of — he had two undeniable strikes against him, being that he was an atheist and a writer, and the women he pursued tended to want to marry the opposite of that. He had been sickly since he could crawl, and just before traveling to Aran underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his neck. He’d grown up isolated, tutored at home rather than attending school, because of his health. But he loved nature, loved observing rabbits and collecting moths in the countryside surrounding his mother’s estate. Darwin was his higher power, and he felt tremendous guilt over shirking his mother’s Protestant ideals. Synge was the dark horse of his family — his older siblings had acceptable careers and acceptable spouses. Synge was still trying to figure out who he was, and how to comfortably be who he was.
When Synge went to Aran just before the turn of the 20th century, he collected the stories and folklore of the islanders in his travel memoir, The Aran Islands. He learned Gaelic, and went rowing with the fishermen in the canvas-covered canoe-like curraghs, and experienced the thrill of being tossed about by the waves. He walked the Aran cliffs in violent rainstorms until his hair was stiff with salt. He drank poteen and played the fiddle for the islanders, and watched the strong, beautiful women of Aran in their work, watched them bathing in the sea. Synge visited Aran five times over the course of a few years, and during those years wrote six plays, inspired by the stories he heard on Aran, including The Playboy of the Western World. Synge’s writing blew into Dublin like a hurricane and forever changed the landscape of the Irish theatre with his daring language and daring women characters (women he probably would have liked to meet). Synge died just before he turned 38 from cancer that was diagnosed too late. But before he died — as Joseph O’Connor would like us to remember — he did finally have a girlfriend.
This past summer after visiting Aran and following my Synge-obsession, I took the bus across the country to Wicklow to attend the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum — a three-day program devoted to talks on Irish literature. Dr. Patrick Lonergan from NUI Galway led group discussions about Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light, and for the most part, the group was very passionate about disliking it. I was surprised — wasn’t Ghost Light chosen as the 2011 Dublin One City One Book that all of Dublin ought to read?
The most prevailing reason people didn’t like it: the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction. Some of the people in the group seemed almost insulted by O’Connor. “If you’re going to write fiction, why not go all the way?” “It seems like he really wanted to write a biography but got lazy.” “There was too much nonfiction in it.” I was about to write this all off as a bunch of academics with no room for creative license, until I remembered that the fiction writer I had met in the café on Inishmaan had the same response: “Why not just make up a totally different story altogether? It’s confusing to people.”
What these naysayers don’t seem to understand is that when you fall for Synge, you fall hard, and you just cannot let go of him. At least one woman (O’Connor might contend) knew this all too well.
Coming from a nonfiction MFA program in America, though, I was shocked. In the States, the trend is to get angry with memoirists and nonfiction writers who don’t stick to the truth. These people were angry with a fiction writer using too much truth to tell a story. To me, the book was clearly called “A Novel” (it’s on the cover), so I was prepared to regard it as fiction.
I told myself to clear my head of my own preconceptions about Synge, his writing, whatever motivations or ideology or emotional life I had given him based on my own research and baggage, but it was nearly impossible for me to do so. I went to Ireland because of him, after all. I’ve read nearly every biography of him, every sappy poem he wrote in his youth, every letter he wrote to his girlfriend (every letter that still exists, anyhow). How could I forget all of this? As I read I resisted. I scowled at the scene depicting how Synge and Molly meet — she sees him standing on the street, looking up at the sky, aloof, and approaches him. This was not what I had imagined their meeting was like (even though there’s no historical record of the meeting). I imagined him noticing her on the stage, her voice, her face, something physical. I vented to my boyfriend about it while he was reading 1Q84 on his iPod. I put the book down for a few days, annoyed and disappointed. This wasn’t what I had hoped for. This was not the Synge I’d come to know and love.
The Synge I’d come to know and love was constantly worrying about his health. He was so insecure about himself and his body that he could barely talk to a member of the opposite sex without fumbling. He was frustrated with feeling lonely, isolated, misunderstood philosophically, and was looking for a new kind of spirituality to comfort him, to soothe his ever-present fear of death and allow him to wake up to joy in his life. The Synge I’d come to know would try just about anything to feel inspired, from studying music and studying socialism to traveling to a chain of weather-beaten islands where the people spoke a language he barely knew. The Synge I’d come to know needed to have an adventure to open himself up to his life, to experience risk and fear and sickness and find out that he was stronger than he thought he was. I realized that the version of Synge I’d come to know and love was actually me.
I’d grown up with an autoimmune disorder, in a family where everyone seemed to get cancer at one point or another, and I always felt incredibly insecure about my health, and consequently, my body. I was painfully shy in school, and just barely started to come out of my shell in college (with men, drink, writing, and otherwise, though constantly in fear of failure). That’s when I first read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a play about a family who lives on the Aran Islands, and despite all the death and storms around them, they still find a way to be strong, to bear it, and to be at peace with the truth of loss. And the sons still go out to the sea, even though they know how dangerous it is. Whether Synge intended these metaphors or not, they seeped into my bloodstream. So what else could I do? I had to see Aran. Traveling to The Aran Islands, as John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it, gave Synge his voice, though I might argue that Aran did not so much give Synge his voice as enable him to finally hear it for himself, loud and clear. Because I know, from experience, that Aran has the power to do just that.
At the Synge Summer School, I tried to dodge questions about what I was “working on,” saying only that I was writing a book about the Aran Islands, shying away from revealing that I was actually writing about Synge’s experiences there through the lens of my own. I feared the wrath of academics who would no doubt find logical fault in my approach. If I were writing a biography, I’d have no counterargument. But that’s why I’m writing a memoir. In memoir, we can take ownership of the illogical nature of imagination as part of what makes us human, as long as we’re honest about it. So why couldn’t I forgive O’Connor for writing fiction?
During the Synge Summer School discussions, I found myself defensively sticking up for O’Connor’s choices even though I hadn’t even read the book yet. What I heard was that someone who was trying to create art was being attacked for not writing what people wanted him to write. This seemed unfair, and so I’d jumped into the metaphorical curragh with O’Connor and tried to row him over the choppy waves to safety. But when it came time to actually read the book, I jumped ship, because I felt my authority was being challenged.
Is this what all of the PhDs and writers at the Synge Summer School were up against? Was our passionate love for “fact” and “truth” as we knew it getting in the way of our appreciation of modern literature, of enjoying a story? Was clinging to our ideals stopping us from moving forward? Certainly Synge, a feminist and atheist ahead of his time, would not be proud of the lot of us.
And so, about a quarter of the way into Ghost Light, I finally softened my view. I opened myself up to the possibility of this other interpretation, and when I felt my own opinions clanging in my mind (“No no no! Synge would never say that! Molly would never write that! Yeats was not that annoying!”) I realized them for what they were (my opinions), laughed at them, and moved on.
Ghost Light follows the story of O’Connor’s version of Molly Allgood, Synge’s love who is an actress, much younger than he, Roman Catholic and working class, but in the book we meet her in old age long after Synge has died. She’s living in London and is more than a bit of a drunken beggar, semi-estranged from her family, living alone, behind on her rent, doing what she needs to do to get by. She has a final letter of Synge’s that she is thinking of selling. For a while we follow her around London and get a sense of the wreck her life has become, and the chapters alternate between the “present” of the novel in the 1950s and Molly’s past in the early 1900s — meeting Synge, acting in Synge’s plays, and becoming Synge’s lover.
One of my favorite chapters was “Scene from a Half-Imagined Stage Play.” This section is not prose, but written in play format, and, I believe, imagined by young Molly. In the scene, Synge finally meets Molly’s mother (the meeting of the parents, in real life, was problematic given the divide in social status and religion) and in this imagined scene the meeting goes relatively well. I saw it as a sort of wish-fulfillment exercise for Molly, darkened by the realities impeding her fantasy of their life together when Synge has a violent coughing fit at the end of the scene.
While I enjoyed both how the narrative jumps back and forth from past to present and the different modes of storytelling, I found the perspective shifts jarring (some chapters are in second person, some are in third person). Although, as I write this, I find myself struggling with the verb tense — am I writing about real people who lived in Ireland, or fictional characters who live still on the page?
Because neither of the storylines (past nor present) are completely elucidated, I didn’t totally grasp the connection between the love affair and what becomes of Molly later in life. Perhaps the way Synge idolizes (idolized?) her has (had?) something to do with it. O’Connor gives us a picture of a hardy, ambitious young girl who gets sucked into the tormented inner world of her self-proclaimed social pariah of a playwright. He creates her career and stokes the flames of her passion and rage, and when he dies, she’s still got the passion and the rage, only no clue what to do with it and no one’s worshipping her anymore, so she falls into depression and drink. That’s what I got out of the book, but the truth is I enjoyed the scenes about their relationship so much that I wish O’Connor had written more of them — both for my own selfish enjoyment, and also because I think there was room left to explore the complexity of the relationship. We have no concrete information about it out here in the real world, so isn’t that what fiction is for (asks this nonfiction writer)?
I won’t talk much about O’Connor’s treatment of Synge, because that’s not what the book is about, though I will permit myself a paragraph to indulge and say that at times I loved his depiction, and at other times I felt myself cringing at things that felt untrue. But then again I have no basis for my own feelings on the matter besides just that — my feelings. Even though I call my book nonfiction because it’s based on lived experience and research, can I truly claim that mine is an emotional truth truer and therefore better than the one that came from O’Connor’s imagination?
But the real focus of Ghost Light is Molly’s story. As O’Connor often references, the family destroyed her letters to Synge. And so O’Connor’s book itself, to me, is a sort of wish fulfillment — giving us a picture of a woman whom we know so little about, who was such an important figure in Irish literary history, a person that a man named John Synge loved fiercely. And in the academic community, at least, there’s much speculation about their relationship: did Molly really love Synge, or was she using him to further her career? Did Synge really love Molly, or was he preying on a young girl who he could manipulate? Did they ever consummate their love with a physical relationship, or was it all talk (and lots of paper and ink)?
All these questions remain, in actuality, but Joseph O’Connor finally gives us the (fictional) answers that Synge-lovers like me have been craving, culminating in a beautiful letter he conjures — a long letter that Molly wrote but never sent, from some remote place in the West where she is learning Irish, as her beloved had done on Aran:
And everything about you gives me the courage I never, ever had and without you I’m like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life and there’s nothing about you I don’t love.
This line speaks to my own love of Synge and how his words swallowed me whole. Reading Synge’s plays and traveling to Aran to seek out the wisdom he found there completely changed me. And without his written words I’d never have had the courage to make journey. John Jeremiah Sullivan ends his New York Times piece, “Whatever comes next, after the crash, Ireland will make itself anew. If it’s smart, that is — if it doesn’t insist, like us, on desperately trying to crawl back to the conditions that made the bubble. A century after Synge’s last works were published, he may be the writer Ireland needs.” I can’t speak for all of Ireland, or even for all of “us,” but Synge was the writer I needed, at least, to get out of my own bubble, to make myself anew.
One night recently, I went to bed after having read a few chapters of Ghost Light, and I had my own dream of Synge. It wasn’t the first time I’d been visited by Synge in a dream (that’s what writing about someone for over four years does to you) but it was the least foggy. I was wandering the halls of a candlelit country estate, and found my way to a grand library, filled with old books and yellowing maps. I waited here, knowing that Synge was coming to meet me.
Soon he arrived, exactly as I have always pictured him: in his 30s but looking 40, a dark face with a trimmed beard and moustache and thick brows and a subtle, half-amused grimace, a hat, a walking stick, a bit of a limp, but dignified. He knew I was coming to see him, and he knew who I was and what I was writing about him and all the things I thought I knew about him, all the things I was so sure of.
I stood up and he took my arm, and we walked out into a beautiful, sunny garden (which I took to be the gardens of his mother’s estate in Wicklow). We kept walking out in this expansive manicured garden, which soon turned into the wild countryside of Wicklow. We wandered the glens and the streams, talking for hours. And he confirmed my beliefs about him, and corrected others. Sadly, upon waking, I could not discern what the truth was — such is the nature of dreams, fiction, and oftentimes memory.
Last summer on Aran, as my boyfriend and I walked the winding roads up the hillside in the rain, drank cider around the midsummer bonfires, climbed over stone walls, and lay silently in the grass in the Bronze Age cliff forts and “let the sea be all our talk” (as O’Connor would say Molly would say), more than once I had the thought: that I was here to honor Synge, to have a great adventure and awaken to the joy in my life, despite the storms that raged above. A wish fulfilled for both of us, perhaps.
Image courtesy of the author.